This week the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), an independent federal agency “charged with determining the probable cause of transportation accidents, promoting transportation safety, and assisting victims of transportation accidents and their families” called for a ban on “the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices (other than those designed to support the driving task) for all drivers.” In other words, no hand held or hand’s free cell phone calls, texting, or email checking while you are driving.

Why? Because, according to the NTSB Chair Deborah A.P. Hersman, "No call, no text, no update, is worth a human life."

The NTSB recommendation grew out of a grisly August 2010 multi-vehicle crash involving two school buses, a truck-tractor and pickup truck. The agency's investigation found that the driver of the pickup, who was killed in the crash, had sent and received 11 text messages in the 11 minutes leading up to the accident, with the final text received just moments before the driver plowed into the back of the truck-tractor that had slowed down in a construction zone, causing a pile-up. Two people died and 38 were injured. The NTSB determined that the “probable cause” of the collision “was distraction, likely due to a text messaging conversation being conducted by the GMC pickup driver.”

The NTSB press release also calls attention to the sometimes-deadly consequences of distracted driving, including distraction from wireless electronic devices. According to a 2010 report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, more than 60% of all adults have “talked on a cell phone while driving” and almost 30% had “sent or read a text message while driving.” These statistics are not without consequences—16% of all traffic fatalities in the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System are attributable to distracted driving. Studies have also shown that texting while driving caused an estimated 16,000 deaths from 2001-2007 and that driving while on the phone increased risk of a crash by four times.

Calling attention to distraction while driving from wireless electronic devices comes in the wake of greatly improved driver safety. There are more drivers on the road today, yet overall motor vehicle safety is better than ever. Between 1999 and 2009, motor vehicle related fatalities have decreased from approximately 37,000 to 30,000. That’s an almost 20% decline in motor vehicle related deaths.

So if our roadways are safer, then why all the attention to cell phones and driving? Because advocates want to make roads even safer, especially in the face of an explosion of handheld technologies that is increasingly integrated into our lives. We’ve all seen it or are guilty of it ourselves. Driving while texting is dangerous. Both the data and common sense tell us that. And studies even show that hands free cell phone conversations may be dangerous too.

Thirty-nine states plus the District of Columbia had some type of restriction on cell phone use while driving as of Nov. 1, 2010, according to an American Journal of Preventive Medicine article published in June; it included a map of states' restrictions and a nifty timeline of how they have grown.

The NTSB’s proposed ban is not enforceable. It’s just a recommendation. And there is controversy as to whether cell phone bans are effective. Data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety finds that cell phone bans have not had an effect on highway deaths. In the wake of these recommendations, more studies and more data are sure to come.

The outcome of these policy discussions is sure to generate controversy and ultimately more legislation, and hopefully, safer roadways. "The data is clear; the time to act is now. How many more lives will be lost before we, as a society, change our attitudes about the deadliness of distractions?" NTSB Chair Hersman said.

What do you think? Should we be allowed to drive and talk on the phone? Drive and text? Let us know by leaving a comment—while sitting at your desk, please.

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